It is a very simple answer, but to a lot of people, it might seem instinctively wrong. Talking to the police can be such a terrible idea.
The basics of our legal system
Before I get into exactly why talking to the police is such a bad idea, I want to tell you about how our legal system works at a very basic level. Our system is what’s known as an adversarial system. That means that there are two sides and each side is trying their hardest to prove what’s right. In the case, in a criminal case, the two sides are represented – on one side – by the prosecution or the state, and on the other side, by the defense, mainly the defendant. Now neither of those sides are only the prosecution and only the defendant. The prosecution has help. They have help from police.
On the other side is the defendant who primarily has helped by primarily has helped from a defense attorney, whether that’s a private attorney or a public defender. Of those four groups that I mentioned, three of them do this every day. It’s their job. It’s what they’ve been trained to do. The fourth person is you. And do you really want to put yourself alone in a room against someone who is adversarial to you when they have training and you don’t. It’s important to keep in mind in this system, the police are on the prosecution side, which means that they are not on your side.
So why do the police want to talk to you?
Well, they want to talk to people in general because they believe that a crime has been committed and they want to speak to a specific person. They want to speak to you for one or two reasons.
- Reason #1 – They might think that you are a witness in a case where a crime was committed and they think you saw something or you know something
- Reason #2 – They might think that you were a suspect in the case. They think that crime was committed and that you did something you helped commit that crime, or maybe you were the only one to commit that crime.
In a perfect world. The police would be talking to everyone that they could so that they could get a better picture of what happened. And they could really flesh out what really happened, whether there was in fact, a crime that was committed and what that crime was.
However, in the real world from a practical standpoint what the police are trying to do is they’re trying to gather evidence that will lead to a conviction in a criminal case. Everything that they do, every person, they talk to every piece of evidence that they collect its primary reason is to make their criminal case that they will present to the state stronger.
What actually happens when you talk to the police?
Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that they already have an idea of what happened in the case. Their idea might be right. It might be wrong, but they have an idea. And so when they’re talking to you, when they’re talking to anyone, what they are trying to do is they’re trying to get the people that they’re talking to, to say things that match up with what they believe happened in the case.
And the police are very good at getting people to say things that they maybe didn’t want to say or didn’t think that they were going to say or something that could be bad for them, but they don’t realize it at the time that it sounds bad. The police have training in interrogation tactics. They have specific techniques that they use. And like I said earlier, they do this all day. They do this every day. They have often years or decades of experience at interrogations for you. That’s not something that you have. You are not being interviewed by police every day. You’re not answering questions about crimes every day.
In fact, for most people, you go your whole lives without dealing with a crime at all. Obviously there’s a little bit of an imbalance of power. There also keep in mind that people misspeak from time to time. It happens all the time. People stumble over their words or say something that they didn’t quite mean because they were thinking about something else. But if you speak in a police interrogation and you say something wrong, what you say can be used against you, even if you immediately point out that that was a mistake. If they believe that that mistake was the actual truth, they’re going to hammer that home. They’re going try to get more out of you. And they will definitely tell the prosecutor that what you said there.
But what if you are just a witness?
Now you might be thinking to yourself, I’m just a witness. There was a crime that happened and I want to help out. And that is admirable. And there’s nothing wrong with that goal. However, just because you are a witness, doesn’t mean that the police believe that you’re a witness. They might believe that you are in fact, the suspect, maybe they talk to someone else who says that you were involved or maybe you’re the only person that they can identify who is there. Maybe you actually start off as a witness in their mind, but you say something you misspeak that makes them suspicious. And over the course of the interrogation, they turn you into a suspect in their minds. They don’t have to tell you that they’re changing you from a witness to a suspect. In fact, they don’t have to tell you that you’re a suspect in the case, they can tell you you’re a witness. What’s important to keep in mind is that there’s no upside to talking to the police. You have the right to remain silent. And if you exercise that right, no one is allowed to later think that you were guilty, guilty just because you didn’t say something. So the idea that “well, if you don’t talk now, it’s just going make you look worse” – That’s actually something that legally cannot happen. A judge or a jury is not allowed to think that you did something wrong just because you didn’t say anything.
However, if you say something and it’s bad for you, and then later on you try to say something else that’s different. They’re allowed to come back and say, well, I know you’re saying this now, but before you said that, so were you lying then? Or are you lying? Now they’re allowed to do that.
On the flip side, if you talk to the police and you are a hundred percent consistent and you stick with your story all the way, and you tell the same story in court that you told to the police, you’re actually not allowed to bring up the fact that you were consistent all the way.
Prior inconsistent statements are admissible in court, but a prior consistent statement is not. So there’s not really any upside there to talking to the police.
In addition, if that doesn’t sound like a good enough reason not to talk to the police, I want you to ask yourselves, what do the police do? If they find themselves being brought in for questioning, what do attorneys do if they find themselves being brought in for questioning? And I can tell you the answer. There is very simple. Police and attorneys are always going to go get an attorney before they talk to the police. And that is something that you should be doing.
Don’t talk to the police without an attorney
If the police want to reach out to you want to bring you in for questioning, regardless of how much you want to help or how innocent you feel like you are – talk to an attorney first. If you want to help and you have good information and you talk to your attorney, your attorney can present that information to the police so that they can complete their investigation or your attorney can point out pitfalls, and what you’re saying and how the way you say something could make you look bad. But bottom line is talk to an attorney, do not talk to the police without an attorney.
You have a constitutional right to remain silent. You shouldn’t just throw that away. If the police have reached out to you and asked you to come in to answer some questions, it’s important that you reach out to an attorney, give us a call. We’ve been helping members of the community for over 30 years, and we’re happy to help you too.